Gritty, gutsy, bold and brave are words that are sometimes bandied about in the context of films. But rare is the Indian film that actually measures up to those adjectives. Hansal Mehta’s Shahid does.
It is a plucky film. Angry but remarkably even-handed, it articulates uncomfortable truths about contemporary India, its media, its judiciary and, of course, its people.
Its barbs are aimed particularly at those that are quick to jump to conclusions and believe the worst about suspected terrorists.
The most arresting aspect of Shahid is that it does not adopt an accusatory tone to narrate the tale of a man who paid the price for daring to stand up for the persecuted at grave risk to his own life.
The film details the facts of the amazing and tragic life of the intrepid TADA detainee-turned-human rights lawyer Shahid Azmi, who was killed in cold blood in early 2010 for defending a 26/11 accused (who, incidentally, was acquitted two and a half years later).
Mehta seeks empathy for his remarkable protagonist without resorting to the conventional narrative means.
Shahid, be it the film or the man, does not reduce the conflict to a simplistic majority versus minority affair.
It narrates a story of humanity under siege, of people who live in a democracy but constantly have all hopes of justice repeatedly dashed.
Minimalistic and unfussy in approach, the film directs our attention to a general and dangerously insidious societal malaise through the details of one particular story that has universal resonance.
The young man whose story Shahid tells never sought to hide his past, which included a short-lived stint in a terrorist training camp in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and many years of incarceration in Tihar Jail on charges of ‘plotting against the state’.
The flimsy allegations were never proved and Shahid Azmi walked free and touched many lives in the remaining years of his life.
Having been at the receiving end of a grave miscarriage of justice, Azmi acquired a law degree and, in a brief but spectacular career, took up legal cudgels on behalf of many innocents accused of acts of terror without sufficient evidence of involvement.
In the seven years that he practiced until he was gunned down in his office, Azmi secured as many as 17 acquittals, a feat that any lawyer would not only have been proud of but also rather worried about.
Why is it that so many young men of a particular community get hauled up every time a terror attack takes place and why is it that the media and its consumers so easily presume guilt on the basis of half-baked charges and insinuations?
Has the violence that surrounds us numbed our collective sense of justice to such an extent that we have qualms in looking for convenient scapegoats among people who are already isolated and driven to a corner?
Shahid seeks answers to these and other related questions but without getting into an unseemly flap.
Mehta’s impressive and utterly fearless film focuses on only two of the many cases that Azmi fought. One can see that the man is up against heavy odds, but he never abandons his faith in the judiciary and keeps chipping away at the ignorance and prejudice he finds all around him.
The film takes forward the principal burden of Azmi’s defining argument against the law enforcement and judicial system’s callous tendency to brand every single accused as a terrorist but does so without taking recourse to any kind of emotional manipulation.
Shahid draws much of its strength from Raj Kumar Yadav’s pitch-perfect pivotal performance.
Yadav is an actor in the Irrfan Khan mould, capable of conveying anguish and inner turmoil through the slightest physical effort or facial twitch.
The character of Shahid Azmi needed a performer with the self-belief to immerse himself completely in the milieu and let go off his own personality. Yadav does just that.
Mehta, on his part, wouldn’t have been perfectly aware of the risks inherent in telling the world who Shahid Azmi and what exactly he was trying to achieve as a lawyer.
That he chose to make this film nonetheless is proof that genuine derring-do, always a rare commodity, isn’t dead in the Mumbai movie industry.
Shahid deserves more than just a standing ovation. It deserves accolades for standing up to be counted and narrating the kind of story that is usually buried under mainstream media cacophony.
The fact that Shahid has got to a multiplex near you should also be applauded and made the most of. Go and watch the film – it is one of the most important films to come out of Mumbai in a long, long time.